Does God Keep His Promises?
As I stood at the altar, teary-eyed, gazing at the love of my life, I was filled with joy, excitement, awe, even fear. There I made some very specific and important promises to Stephanie about our life going forward. We would be joining our lives, our hopes, our joys, our disappointments, ourselves together until one of us stands over the grave of the other. On June 4, 2005, I entered into a covenant with my wife.
The word “covenant” isn’t in frequent rotation in our culture today. Typically, it is used in the context of a homeowner’s association agreement that stipulates certain rules for what you can and cannot do with your home in agreement with the other homes in your neighborhood. These “covenants” are more of a contract or agreement than a formal covenant, namely because they lack the deeply formal and ceremonial aspects of the act of making a covenant with another party.
In a wedding, the ceremony itself is a way of enacting and demonstrating a covenant’s reality. But within the ceremony, specific actions are occurring that bear out the nature of the marriage arrangement being made. It’s not just an agreement for a couple to cohabitate together now, nor is it an agreement to join bank accounts, produce children, or to be life-long companions and friends. The marriage ceremony itself is an act of making a covenant. There are multiple parties (a bride and groom), promises that are made (wedding vows), and a sign of the covenant given (exchange of rings). Two lives become one through the promises made to each other.
When God makes promises, He does so, not entering a transactional or contractually based arrangement. God makes a covenant. He holds a ceremony and makes formal and real the promises that He is declaring. This ceremony is exactly what he does with Abram (a.k.a. Abraham) in one of the first covenants God makes with humanity.
The Covenant Ceremony
Unlike the joy and brightness of a wedding ceremony, God and Abram’s covenant ceremony is a little darker. Genesis 15:7–21 tells us the story of the covenant ceremony between God and Abram. It involves slaughter. The Hebrew language of the ceremony itself is called “cutting a covenant” (kārat bĕrît).
In the ceremony, God tells Abram to bring animals, a heifer cow, a female goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon. Knowing that Abram was entering into a covenant ceremony with God, he does what the ceremony required. He cut the animals (except birds) in half and laid the halves across from each other on the ground.
With the ceremony offerings set, Abram waits. Darkness descends, Abram fell into a deep sleep. And then God spoke! He declares his great promises to Abram and Abram’s descendants. Abram’s offspring will possess the land, but it will be after an extended period that includes affliction, slavery, and redemption (Genesis 9:13–14). Abram won’t see the promise fulfilled in his lifetime (Genesis 9:15), but generations ahead will see the fulfillment (Genesis 9:16).
It’s at this point that the covenant ceremony takes a unique turn. Usually, in a covenant ceremony, both parties would be involved in the ceremony’s oaths and symbolism. However, this ceremony is different. Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum describe it this way in their book God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants: A Concise Biblical Theology:
“The ceremony of covenant making involves an oath in which the covenant partners bring the curse of death upon themselves if they are not faithful to the covenant relationship and promises. Walking between the animals cut in half is a way of saying, “May I become like these dead animals if I do not keep my promise(s) and my oath.” Scholars describe this as a self-maledictory oath, i.e., an oath where one brings the curse of death upon oneself for violating the covenant commitments.”
However, in ratifying the covenant here, only one-party walks between the animal pieces. The Lord himself! This covenant is no mutual contract or agreement requiring both parties to fulfill their roles for the covenant to be complete. God places all the burden upon Himself and His character. The curses of failing to keep covenant would fall upon God, the oath guaranteed solely by him.
God Keeps His Promises
Here’s the point; God has made promises, and He has guaranteed the outcome of those promises based on who He is. He doesn’t even involve the other party in the solemn action of the covenant.
God has kept His promises to Abram and us in blessing the whole earth. Through the long history of Israel, culminating in the Messiah’s coming, God displayed his faithfulness. The Apostle Paul, reflecting on that reality, tells us that the promise was made to Abram “and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offspring’s,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16).
Timothy Keller drives home the point:
“The promise by God to Abram is a covenantal promise. And it is a covenant that relies in no way on Abram, but only on God. He would die before He broke His promise to bless Abram and His descendants, and through one particular descendant (“your seed,” Galatians 3:16) to offer blessing to the world. And in the end, He did die, on a cross, as that “seed,” the man Jesus Christ.”
The covenant God made with Abram was a promise to us of God’s faithfulness and devotion. He fulfilled this in sending Christ for us, even at a high cost to Himself. Where we have been radical enemies against God — worthy to be rejected and refused — God covenanted Himself to us! The good news is that Christ is the one who has fulfilled and kept all of the promises. He is the one who bore the curse we deserve for violating the covenant. He is the one who brings us into the covenant family through faith in him. God keeps his promises! The coming of Christ for us and our salvation is the proof.